Adaptive Sailing: An Exponential Challenge

As adaptive sailing programs evolve internationally, the American Paralympic Team is doing all they can to keep up with the pace of development.

The starting gun ringing in their ears, two American Sonar teams knew what was at stake. The last race of the IFDS Disabled Sailing Combined World Championship in Halifax, N.S., was their last shot to climb the standings and into a Paralympic berth. Two horns sounded a general recall, and with the X-Ray flag hoisted came the end of the regatta. Standings remained, meaning the Sonar sailors failed to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

For Bradley Johnson, bowman for one of the teams, it was a disappointment that reinforced just how difficult it is to qualify for the Paralympic games today. The difference between 1996, when Paralympic sailing began as a demonstration sport, is dramatic. Back then, qualifying regattas bore little resemblance to the intense competition in Halifax this year. With innovations in adaptive technology and more robust training opportunities, they’re no longer just disabled sailors, but highly-trained athletes.

“We’re talking about sailing against world-class sailors; this is not a bucket race,” says Johnson, 44. “Our class has former America’s Cup sailors from New Zealand, and the French team captain has done a single-handed circumnavigation. This Sonar fleet is borderline elite professional.”

Johnson, who has been sailing on and off the U.S. Paralympic Team since 2003, has seen the changes firsthand. “Our class, over the course of the past twelve years, has grown exponentially both in size and level of competition,” he says. “I’ve seen the changes in the programs of each country, the support and the investment, along with other intricacies that make it possible. In some countries, the Paralympic sailors are sailing full-time. We’re not quite there yet, but the increase of resources we’ve been seeing is key to a successful Paralympic program.”

“Many countries, including the United States, have blended their Olympic and Paralympic teams into one,” says Betsy Alison, U.S. Paralympic Sailing Team Coach. “The result is one team with one focus.The Olympic sailors are exposed to a group of people who have overcome significant challenges, and when they come up against training obstacles our ‘O’ sailors can reflect on how the ‘P’ sailors have overcome in these circumstances.”

Depth across Paralympic classes has been steadily increasing since 1996, says Alison. “For us to be able to compete on the same level as fully-funded Paralympic teams is really incredible. The competition is better than it has ever been, so we need to step up our game, we need to be better than ever before.”

Johnson and his teammates, skipper Andrew Fisher and tactician Mike Hersey, will have a final opportunity to qualify at the next IFDS Worlds in Melbourne, Australia, in November 2015. In the meantime, there’s work to be done. Both of Johnson’s teammates are healing from surgery, and after recovery they’ll all be getting back on the water together.

“You don’t become great at anything unless you do it repetitively,” says Johnson. “We’ll be working on communication on the boat and getting the entire team on the same page so we can compete without issue. We’re going to go over all of it—starting, boathandling, tactics—there’s nothing we’re not going to cover.”

Alison is confident the next year of training will pay off in spades. “Brad and his teammates will be going to Melbourne,” she says. “They will qualify, and we will go to Rio.”

This article first appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Sailing World.

Note: It was recently announced that sailing will not be part of the program for the 2020 Paralympic Games. ISAF is challenging this decision. Click here to read more.

Bradley Johnson, who lost both his left leg below the knee and his right leg above the knee in a 1993 car crash, won a bronze medal sailing in Athens in 2004. He also competed in the Paralympics in London in sailing (2012) and seated volleyball in Sydney (2000).Will Ricketson